by Dr Ferdaus Ahmad Quarishi
THE US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is gracing us with a short visit as part of her tour of the Asia Pacific to bolster what has been described as a giant stride to cement US relations with the countries in the region. Her visit coinciding with that of the senior Indian minister Pranab Mukherjee may not be taken at its face value. The two visits must have been planned in tandem and observers are prone to believing that there might be some common purpose. She was in Beijing this week and from Dhaka she will hop to Kolkata and Delhi onwards. Curiously, all US high dignitaries visiting Bangladesh in recent days have been doing the same — either coming to Dhaka via Delhi or leaving Dhaka with a stopover in Delhi. Almost as a routine. Dhaka appears to be on the sidelines of the Washington-Delhi axis.
However this time Delhi seems to be keeping a relatively low profile, the centre stage will be obviously around the ‘second-most powerful lady’ on earth.
Official pronouncement from the US embassy here shows no specific agenda for the visit. However, the grand agenda of the Obama administration for the Asia Pacific has already been detailed by Clinton herself in the following few words:
‘The future of politics will be decided in Asia , not in Afghanistan or in Iraq, and the United States will be right at the centre of action.’
No wonder she is on her trail in that very pursuit. And she enunciates her government’s policy in this regard further:
‘…We are … expanding our alliance with Australia from a Pacific partnership to an Indo-Pacific one … How we translate the growing connection between the Indian and Pacific oceans into an operational concept is a question that we need to answer if we are to adapt to new challenges in the region. Against this backdrop, a more broadly distributed military presence across the region will provide vital advantages.’
It is therefore not unlikely that her current visit might be part of that endeavour to ‘translate’ the said growing connection into an ‘operational concept’. It is all the more plausible in the wake of China’s multifaceted effort to shortcut Malacca through Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal, thereby the Bay of Bengal, including Bangladesh at its heart, attaining newer geopolitical nodality.
Myanmar’s ascendancy in the priority list of both the US and India is unmistakably clear. In spite of the bitter relations over decades India is seen to be waving olive towards Myanmar since the beginning of the nineties. And the US also after decades of hard fisting is now in a completely new mood.
On November 30 Clinton reached Myanmar for the first official visit by any US secretary of state to that country in last several decades. The country, which was so far being treated as a pariah, appears to have suddenly emerged as a coveted destination for the West. However, her historic encounter with the pariah was not as warm as it was expected to be. The reception was too cool not to be kept unnoticed. As per reports from her entourage, at the newly built majestic Nay Pye Taw airport, the grand lady received much less attention than the prime minister of Belarus arriving there the same day. Moreover, the official mouthpiece of the ruling party of Myanmar, The New Light of Myanmar, gave her a sleek second-page treatment, while the latter received a ‘lavish front page treatment.’ Her meeting with the Myanmar president was limited to diplomatic formality as reported in the press. She had to be satisfied with a bare feet walk around the statue of Lord Buddha in the Shwedagon pagoda, the ‘cultural epicentre’ of the country near Yangon and a friendly meeting with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the ‘democracy icon’ of the West, in a country severely handicapped due to economic and diplomatic sanctions for decades.
In spite of that, in the light of the new game plan of the Obama administration to hop from the sandy deserts of Middle East over to the lush green of the Asia Pacific, this pilgrimage certainly opens up a new chapter in the geopolitics of our region.
The game plan succinctly pronounced by Clinton in her Hawaii speech and her write up for the Foreign Affairs Quarterly last year captioned — ‘America’s Pacific Century’ — is being read and reread all around the globe and especially in this part of the world.
Her agenda is clear:
‘As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. Over the last 10 years, we have allocated immense resources to those two theatres. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.’
This is how she starts and then she goes on:
‘…just as our World War II commitment to building a comprehensive and lasting transatlantic network of institutions and relationships has paid off many times over — and continues to do so. The time has come for the United States to make similar investments as a Pacific power, a strategic course set by President Barack Obama from the outset of his administration and one that is already yielding benefits.’
It is now clear that the Indian Ocean-Bay of Bengal region will be under floodlight in the coming days. China has already inked a deal with Myanmar to build an 850-kilometre super highway with rail-road-pipeline, connecting mainland China from Yunnan to Kyauk Phyu in the Arakan coast of the Bay of Bengal. With super high speed trains plying at 200-350 kilometres per hour, the time distance over this stretch of land coming down to 4-5 hours only, the geopolitical scenario changes dramatically. According to the Times of India this will provide the missing link to China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategic construct starting from East Africa through Seychelles, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
In this backdrop the recent verdict of ITLOS in the Bangla-Myanmar tussle over the Bay waters attains greater significance. Although it was an unfortunate retreat by Myanmar from her 1974 commitments on the maritime boundary and Bangladesh had to swallow the bitter pill (of course with victory celebrations to hoodwink its own people!), the verdict, nevertheless, brings peace and stability in the Bangla-Myanmar water front, at least for oil and gas exploration. Ironically, all the contractors now sharing the blocks on either side are from the US, India and South Korea, birds of the same feather! Secretary Clinton and Pranab Mukherjee’s visit may not be out of context in this regard also.
When Clinton says, ‘Just as Asia is critical to America’s future, an engaged America is vital to Asia’s future’, or ‘the region is eager for our leadership and our business — perhaps more than any time in modern history’, some of her readers quip: ‘No Madam, Asian countries … have their own fish to fry. It is high time that Monroe was buried, dead and forgotten.’
Monroe buried or not, we may remind ourselves that even during the last century America was at the heart of the Indian and Pacific Ocean region for more than fifty years. It chased and destroyed the Japanese navy in the 1940s, started a war in Korea that hasn’t ended as yet. A massive military engagement in Vietnam lasted nearly 25 years, not to mention the ending.
Therefore a ‘new American century’ in this region is perhaps not as new as it is being projected. US alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand are already there. Clinton considers those as the ‘fulcrum’ for her ‘strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific’, to leverage the regional presence and enhance the regional leadership of US at a time of ‘evolving security challenges’.
What are those security challenges? Obviously the biggest challenge comes from the dragon on other side of the Himalayas, including the few recalcitrant still on the ‘wrong’ side. And Clinton is fairly open. Apart from the oft-repeated prescription to China, she reprimands the recalcitrant minnows:
‘As we deepen our engagement with partners with whom we disagree on these issues, we will continue to urge them to embrace reforms that would improve governance, protect human rights, and advance political freedoms. We have made it clear, for example, to Vietnam that our ambition to develop a strategic partnership requires that it take steps to further protect human rights and advance political freedoms. Or consider Burma, where we are determined to seek accountability for human rights violations. We are closely following developments in Nay Pyi Taw and the increasing interactions between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government leadership. We have underscored to the government that it must release political prisoners, advance political freedoms and human rights, and break from the policies of the past.’
Huntington left India as the ‘grey area’ in his global divide between the so-called ‘Western civilisation’ and the ‘coalition of the Islamic and Sinic civilisation’. It is not yet clear whether India has shed that ‘grey’ contour and sealed her fate finally with the so-called West.
With the Bay of Bengal turning turbulent in the foreseeable future, Bangladesh needs to put her steps cautiously and be prudent in playing her dimes, to ensure that there is no free ride.
Dr Ferdaus Ahmad Quarishi is chairman of the Progressive Democratic Party.